Cleaning Marble or Limestone

There’s a right way and a wrong way to clean marble or limestone.

For many decades, masonry houses were built with marble or limestone used for the window and door sills, lintels, belt courses, and outdoor steps. These stone types were also used, in grander houses, for quoins at the corners and modillions in the cornice. The stones are dirtied and eventually damaged by atmospheric pollutants, bird droppings, and even the dirt carried across steps by our shoes. It’s wise to spend some time carefully cleaning limestone and marble, before damage can occur.

The wrong way to clean marble or limestone.

Ray Tschoepe

Consider that marble, a metamorphic stone, is created when sedimentary limestone is subjected to high pressure and heat underground. The calcite-based stones are closely related, and both are damaged in the presence of acids—whether lemon juice on the kitchen counter or acid rain on a limestone lintel. They benefit from similar cleaning techniques. 

Causing further damage

Many cleansers will “do the trick”—that is, remove the dirt and leave the sill or steps looking cleaner. Depending on the makeup of the cleaning agent, though, short-term improvement may come at a cost. Common acidic cleansers include mineral-deposit and rust-stain removers, and bathroom cleaners. Acids dissolve the calcite-based structure of marble and limestone, leaving the surface rougher and therefore more likely to pick up soil. Continued use of the agent, as well as pollutants, dissolve the stone, causing pitting and loss of detail.

The right way to clean marble or limestone.

Ray Tschoepe

Avoid acidic cleaners

Keep in mind that marble and limestone are vulnerable to dissolution in acids. This is the reason that acid rain is so damaging to marble statuary and cemetery monuments. Make certain that the detergent you use is classified as non-ionic, or that its pH is slightly alkaline. Look for cleaners designed for marble countertops, etc., and follow the directions on the container.

Tags: Cleaning Limestone cleaning marble OHJ April 2021

By Ray Tschoepe

Raymond Tschoepe is Director of Conservation for the Fairmont Park Historic Conservancy and and adjunct faculty member of the historic preservation program of Bucks County Community College, where he teaches a core course in building conservation. He is a contributing editor of Old House Journal, for which he has written, illustrated, and photographed numerous articles. Mr. Tschoepe lectures at conferences and workshops for the Traditional Building Conference and the Association for Preserving Technology. Mr. Tschoepe graduated from the School of Fine Arts master’s program in Historic Preservation. He then worked for nearly 10 years as an independent restoration contractor. Among many preservation projects, Ray worked toward the restoration of elements of Bellaire manor, Letitia Street House, Malta Boat Club and the entry doors and panels of Founder’s Hall at Girard College.

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